Christmas in Prison
From The Stranger – by BRENDAN KILEY
The visiting room of the SeaTac Federal Detention Center is bleak. Prison is supposed to be bleak, but it’s difficult to appreciate how bleak it is until you’ve walked inside—past the grim security checkpoint, the sallow-faced chaplain with the giant keys hanging from his pants, the many heavy doors that slam shut behind you like a metal thunderclap, the off-white walls and institutional lighting that seem to suck the color out of everyone’s hair and clothes, the frosted-over windows to block any view of the outside world, and into the visiting room with its plastic chairs arranged in sets of four with a guard sitting in a high booth, presiding over the room like a bored judge.
And the waiting. Lots and lots of waiting.
The large visiting room, with many doors leading off to other places, also serves as a transit point in the prison. Men (and the occasional woman) wearing prison khakis sit, staring into the middle distance with flat expressions, waiting until a guard, sometimes wearing latex gloves, opens a door and barks out names. Then the inmates get up, sometimes eagerly and sometimes hesitantly, and walk into some other chamber of the federal fortress.
Amid all the bleakness, inmate Katherine Olejnik seems surprisingly smiley and optimistic. She is one of two inmates I’ve come to visit—the other is Matt Duran—who have been sitting in this prison for around three months. (Duran a few days more than that, Olejnik a few days less.)
They haven’t been accused of a crime. They haven’t even been arrested for a crime. They’re here because they refused to answer questions for a federal prosecutor, in front of a grand jury, about people they may (or may not) know: who those people are, who those people hang out with, and what political opinions those people hold.
Supposedly, that federal prosecutor is interested in the smashup in Seattle on May Day and finding the demonstrators who broke the windows of a federal courthouse. But Olejnik says the prosecutor only asked her four questions about May Day, which she answered truthfully: Was she in Seattle on May Day? (No.) Where was she? (Working at her waitress/bartending job in Olympia.) Had she been in Seattle a week before or a week after May Day? (No.) Had anybody talked to her about May Day? (No. In fact, she says she learned most of what she knows about the smashup while she was in court.)
That was all he asked about the May Day vandalism.
Then, she says, the prosecutor began rattling off names and showing photographs of people, asking about their social contacts and political opinions. Olejnik guesses he asked “at least 50 questions” in that vein, compared to the four about May Day. That’s when she shut down, refused to answer, was found in contempt of court, and was sent to SeaTac FDC.
She doesn’t regret it. “I truly believe that people have the right to believe whatever they want politically,” Olejnik says, sitting in a chair beside me in her prison khakis. “And it’s none of the government’s business.”
As far as she can tell, she’s not in prison because she couldn’t help with a vandalism investigation. She’s there because she refused, on principle, to help the federal government draw a social map of radicals and leftists in the Northwest.
Grand juries are secret—prosecutors are the only attorneys allowed in the room—but people who’ve been subpoenaed to appear before them are allowed to talk afterward about what happened. The two attorneys for Olejnik and Duran, who sit with us during the interviews in the SeaTac FDC, vaguely say the versions of events described by their clients are consistent with what they read in the transcripts. The US Attorney’s Office has repeatedly said it cannot comment on anything related to a grand jury, because grand juries are secret. So we have to rely on Duran and Olejnik and their attorneys’ vague corroboration.
I have to interview Duran separately, because the guards don’t want him and Olejnik—close friends and roommates at the time they got the subpoenas—to see each other. (They say they passed each other once in the visiting area and waved at each other, and the guards grumbled about that.) How, I ask Duran, would you explain why you’re here to people on the outside?
“Not everyone will understand,” Duran says in a soft voice. “You have to be in a different state of mind to be willing to go to jail to protect someone you basically have no knowledge of.” He talks about his years as a young student in the Army ROTC, when veterans would come and talk about serving their country because they felt a sense of duty. Not answering questions about other people, he says, “is the duty I can perform.”
Duran, like Olejnik, believes that when the FBI comes knocking, handing out subpoenas, legally compelling them to tell a federal prosecutor about their fellow citizens’ private lives and political beliefs, they have a duty to object. And, like Bartleby the Scrivener, their most powerful tool of protest against a force like the federal government is to simply and politely say: “I would prefer not to.” (It’s worth remembering that Bartleby’s quiet, stubborn “I would prefer not to” eventually lands him in prison.)
And that’s why they’re spending the holidays in prison.
Both Duran and Olejnik say other inmates, and even the guards, are baffled about them—and especially why they’re there. The two grand-jury refusers are fairly normal people with fairly normal jobs. Until the incarceration, Olejnik worked as a bartender and waitress at King Solomon’s Reef, a diner in Olympia. Duran worked for a computer-security company and was pleasantly surprised when his employer said the company would hold his job for him, as long as he wasn’t charged with anything. (Having a criminal on the computer-security payroll might be bad for business.) “I didn’t expect them to understand what was going on,” he says, then chuckles softly. “But even I don’t understand what’s going on!”
More to the point, they haven’t actually been charged with anything, and they have no idea how long they’ll be there. Technically, they can leave whenever they decide to cooperate with the federal prosecutor, but both say they’re firmly resolved against that.
“It’s not even an option in my mind,” Olejnik says. “They’ve already made me walk away from my job, my family, my home—there’s nothing they could legally do to make me give them information.” Or, as Duran puts it: “Everyone’s here because they did something. But I’m here because I’m still doing it.”
Duran says he’s explained his situation to inquisitive prisoners and guards, and it usually comes down to the same exchange: “So you’re just here because you wouldn’t talk?” “Yeah.” “That’s messed up.”
The FDC bureaucracy doesn’t seem to know what to do with them either. They haven’t been accused and they haven’t been sentenced, so they’re stuck in the pretrial units, where the prisoners don’t have access to the usual prison programs: education classes to work on GEDs, kitchen or janitorial jobs, Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous (which is a heavy burden on some of the prisoners), or regular exercise equipment. If the SeaTac detention center is a boring limbo, its pretrial units are a limbo within limbo.
Olejnik says she and her fellow pretrial inmates are “super-jealous” of the Zumba dance-aerobics classes that the other prisoners get. Her unit exercises in “the yard,” which isn’t really a yard, but a large cell with a metal grate 20 feet high on one wall that allows in some fresh air. You can sometimes see a sliver of the moon, she says, or feel the rain coming in. That’s as close as it gets to being outside. (Duran says in his unit, a plane flying past the grate in the yard is the highlight of the day.) For their workouts, the women mostly run in circles around the cell, or do what yoga or Pilates moves other prisoners can remember. And they get to play volleyball.
The first question in the women’s unit, Olejnik says, isn’t what a prisoner is in for—it’s whether she has children. If the answer is yes, the second question is always whether she has custody of the kids. “Since it’s a pretrial unit,” Olejnik says, “most people still have custody of their children and are working incredibly hard to keep it. You get 300 phone minutes a month—for people who can afford it.” If someone gets stuck in solitary confinement (called the Special Housing Until, aka “the SHU”), Olejnik says, she gets one phone call a month. She’s seen women in solitary spending their monthly phone call helping kids with homework—trying to be as motherly as possible under the circumstances.
Both Duran and Olejnik were put in solitary confinement as soon as they arrived, without much explanation. (Both of their attorneys, who have represented other inmates at the SeaTac FDC, say starting the prisoners off in solitary confinement isn’t typical in their experience.) Olejnik says she wasn’t told she could ask for a cup or a spork, so she spent her week in the SHU drinking water out of her hands. She depicts the SHU as “intense psychological torture” that’s difficult to describe—you don’t know what’s going on, you can’t talk to anyone, and the lights come on and off without your control. “I was only in for a week,” she says, and can’t imagine what it would be like to be in there for months. Then, one day, she was let out into her unit.
Both Duran and Olejnik wonder if they were immediately shoved into solitary in the hopes that it would freak them out and convince them to answer the grand jury’s questions. If so, it didn’t work.
“We do each other’s hair a lot,” Olejnik says of the women’s unit. The prisoners pull their chairs out of their cells, and fuss over each other with a blow dryer and curling and straightening irons (they aren’t allowed to have scissors), trying to replicate the casual beauty-salon conversations they had in the outside world. When we talk in the visiting room, Olejnik’s hair looks like it spent some quality time with the straightening iron.
The prisoners also fuss over Olejnik’s mail. Both she and Duran get a lot of mail from all over the world, several letters a day, sometimes from anarchist supporters and sometimes from strangers who say they’ve never been involved with political activism but feel like this grand jury situation is beyond the pale. (The outpouring of support was a surprise—both say they did what they thought they had to do, went to prison, and fully expected to be forgotten.) The other prisoners don’t get so much mail. Olejnik pulls all hers into a pile, and the women read it together, sometimes aloud, smelling the paper for any scent from the outside world—a flower pressed in the pages, cologne, incense—and help Olejnik work through her return letters.
Olejnik also shares the books people send her. She helped one prisoner read the first volume of the Harry Potter series. Olejnik and the prisoner would read every night, going paragraph by paragraph, sounding out the big words and discussing what happened in each passage. “She got to the point of reading a whole page on her own,” Olejnik says. When they finished, the other prisoner told Olejnik that was the first book she’d ever read. “She called her mom to tell her,” Olejnik says. “And her mom cried.”
Olejnik says having your period in prison “really sucks.” The commissary, apparently, isn’t carrying tampons these days, and strip-searches while you’re on your period are deeply humiliating. “People on their period,” she says, “mostly stay in their rooms all day.”
But the prisoners laugh sometimes, teasing and joking. “And I have so little to complain about compared to other people in here,” Olejnik says. “That’s not to say I don’t have bad times. We all cry in here. But I try to keep those days to a minimum.”
While Olejnik is robust and incongruously cheerful in the bleakness of the visiting room, Duran is more subdued. He’s slight and bookish, wears glasses, and tries to keep his head down. His unit sounds tenser, with more jealousy and prisoners quick to take offense. “It’s like a microcosm of the real world,” he says, but magnified by the confinement. “Race politics, class politics—one cellie [cellmate] was mad at the other for being really rich. He didn’t pay something like a million dollars in back taxes.” In most conversations, he says, “I try to stay as neutral as possible.”
His mail, unlike Olejnik’s, is not a community event. He says some of his fellow prisoners joke, “Hey, save some mail for us,” but it’s starting to overflow in his locker. He can afford the postage to forward it on to friends for safekeeping, because fundraising efforts for the grand-jury refusers help pay his commissary bills. “But,” he says, “I don’t want to flaunt my wealth in front of the others.” Mail to prisoners is a big deal, he says. “It can make or break a prisoner’s day.” One guy has been depressed for weeks because some books he was supposed to get around Thanksgiving haven’t arrived yet.
Despite the tensions, Duran says the fact that he’s there because he refused to talk has given him some currency, even across the usual racial lines. “A lot of people in my unit are there because somebody snitched on them,” he says. “One guy I hang out with was in a group of people charged with conspiracy.” Conspiracy is a common charge to loop in bunches of people who have a peripheral relationship to the central crime. “They all said they wouldn’t snitch. He’s here now because he’s the only one who wouldn’t snitch!”
But because Duran is Latino and speaks Spanish, he’s a de facto member of the Latino clique. They measured his thin biceps when he first came in, which—to their chagrin—measured only 13 inches around. Now they call him “El Trece” (Spanish for 13) and hector him to work out more, like doing pull-ups when he’d rather be reading. He thanks me during our long interview for saving him from the afternoon workout. “I’m really sore from yesterday,” he says, smiling slightly while rubbing his arm.
Conversation among his fellow prisoners centers on four topics: their cases, how bad the food is, how cold the prison is, and, as Duran puts it, “I did this thing once five years ago, and it was cool.”
“It is,” he says, “extremely monotonous.”
Duran says he’s in a protective custody unit for people who aren’t supposed to be in the general population—that includes snitches, alleged cartel affiliates, high-profile prisoners with well-publicized cases (his situation, so he’s told), and sex criminals. Duran’s face goes dark. “I really,” he says slowly, looking down, “don’t want to be associated with those people.”
Prisoners who’ve done time in that unit, he says, usually don’t mention it on the outside, even to other people who’ve done time at the SeaTac FDC. It’s not a reputable unit, even among fellow prisoners. Duran says that for him, it’s just “study, keep your head down, do your time.”
Still, he seems as resolved as Olejnik to refuse to capitulate. Does doing his time feel different than somebody who has a concrete sentence? “Yes,” he says. “I’m not gonna be here for 10 years, but I don’t know how long I’m gonna be here… could be a day, could be six months, could be two years, could be longer.” But, as he said earlier, he feels he’s doing his duty. “Even most of the inmates I talk to say: ‘Why don’t you lie? Why don’t you put the rap on somebody else?'” Duran says. “I don’t want to be part of the process that puts anyone here. Here is really bad… The government wants me here out of pure frustration—for an entity with worlds of power, they don’t want resistance at any point.”
He says sticking to his guns means he has “a more satisfying life… I’m here because I’m doing something.”
Duran and Olejnik are in prison for civil contempt of court, which is supposed to be a coercive measure—to get them to change their minds—and not punitive. It’s as if the government has sent them into a corner, telling them to come back when they’re ready to start answering those questions about other people and their politics. Both Duran and Olejnik say that’s bullshit. As Duran puts it: “In prison, it’s all punitive.” They could be in detention for civil contempt until this grand jury dissolves in 2014.
Or they could be released if either the federal prosecutor or Judge Richard A. Jones—who presided over their civil contempt hearings—files a motion to end their incarceration. Olejnik’s attorney says it’s highly unlikely the prosecutor will take this step. He is, she says, “pretty resolute that this is a path he should be pursuing.” But the ultimate authority rests with Judge Jones. Why has he favored the prosecutor in this case and not Duran and Olejnik? It’s hard to say. (Judge Jones did not respond to a request for comment.)
But even if the government and Judge Jones force them to run down that clock, they could be further charged with criminal contempt of court, meaning even more time. Limbo within limbo. (A third grand-jury refuser named Maddy Pfeiffer, 23, will soon join Duran and Olejnik. At a contempt hearing last Friday, Judge Jones ordered Pfeiffer to report to the SeaTac FDC at 9 a.m. on December 26.)
As a Thanksgiving treat this year, Duran says, the prisoners got a can of soda, an extra helping of food, and the chance to watch a movie: Spider-Man.
I didn’t ask him what he thought they’d get for Christmas